One hardly expects to come across frescoes in the South Seas, and so I was surprised one day on entering a breezeblock church on a coral atoll in the vastness of the Pacific to see frescoes on either side of the altar. On the left was a depiction of Hell, on the right of Heaven. The artist was no Michelangelo, but Hell nevertheless was painted with a certain iconographic vigor that made up for deficiencies in draftsmanship. Black devils with tails and scales and hooves and claws, with coal-red eyes glowing with joyous malignity, were poking rather sorry-looking naked sinners in the direction of fiery and sulphurous lakes, which one was intended to understand as eternal, rather like the flame in tombs of the Unknown Warrior. Hell was interesting at least.

By contrast, Heaven was anemic-looking and rather faded. A single man in a white linen suit and a panama hat was strolling, without evident purpose, in what seemed like a Devonshire seaside town on a Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. Certainly, such a scene conveyed the sense of eternity well enough, but not of bliss. The artist’s imagination had failed him completely.

One can’t really criticize him for that. The fact is that it is almost impossible to conceive of the conditions of everlasting happiness, but everyone can think within a few minutes of the conditions of scores of everlasting private hells. The same asymmetry is discernible in literary depictions of utopias and dystopias. Indeed, it is much easier to make an evil character interesting than a good one. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary international success of Alexander McCall Smith’s series of books about the Botswanan lady detective, Mma Ramotswe. He has succeeded in doing what is very difficult and very rare, to create a character who is both good and not insufferably dull.

Precisely because perpetual human pleasure, let alone happiness, is so difficult to envisage, serious attempts at describing a perfect society are not merely inclined to be boring, but absurd and above all shallow. They are so unrealistic because man is not only a problem-solving animal, he is, as a consequence, a problem-creating one: a world without problems would be intolerable to him, and he would create them merely to escape the vacuity of a problem-free existence. Thus the best of worlds would soon seem to be the worst of worlds. Utopia is impossible.

Thus the best of worlds would soon seem to be the worst of worlds. Utopia is impossible.

Dystopias, by contrast, are two a penny and most of them are at least partially convincing. This is because they take an unpleasant trend that really does exist in contemporary society and multiply it exponentially until it becomes the only salient characteristic of the imagined future society. And the past century of world wars, bloody revolutions, totalitarian dictatorships, man-made famines, and genocides renders almost any dystopia plausible.

The strange thing is that most of the best dystopias are British. This is odd, in a way, because Britain escaped many of the worst events of the twentieth century, except for the First World War, relatively unscathed and with a relatively clean conscience. By the admittedly low standards of the rest of Europe, Britain did not sup full of horrors. And yet many of its authors—H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Rex Warner, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell—wrote better nightmares than the writers of less fortunate lands.

The tradition continues. Britain today is propitious for the dystopian imagination because, while it is prosperous as never before, if in a slightly feverish or delirious way that might at any moment give way to a drenching cold sweat in the course of which the patient returns to reality, it is perceived by its inhabitants to be a deeply unpleasant society. The precise nature and source of this unpleasantness remains a matter of dispute; it remains indefinable, but none the less real for that. Some blame the excessive individualism (without individuality) ushered in by Mrs. Thatcher, others, the corrupt corporatism of the Blair era. But what everyone is agreed is that there is a deep malaise and sense of unease in the country, such that a half of those polled wished to leave it if they could.

It is in this light, perhaps, that we should read the latest novel of the British writer Jim Crace, called The Pesthouse.1 The action takes place after an unspecified cataclysm so total that the entire population, or that part of it that survives, is thrown back to a pre-industrial age, living by subsistence and a little barter, in an atomized society with minimal division of labor. The infrastructure of the country has been destroyed or crumbled away, as has all political authority; marauding bands roam the countryside, preying on people; such towns as still exist are small, and need to be fortified against those bands. All technical knowledge has been lost in the cataclysm, and most of the cultural inheritance too, so that people return to the grossest superstition, for example, about illness and disease. The level of life returns to that of the Dark Ages. As a result of the general poverty and insecurity, there is a mass migration to the coast, in the hope of catching a boat to the other side of the ocean, where life is rumored to be easier, more luxurious, and plentiful, and where a man by dint of hard work can live better.

The strange thing about this scene is that it takes place in America and not in Europe. The traditional direction of the flow of people fleeing either poverty or oppression has reversed: it is in America that civilization has collapsed, and the east is now the land of opportunity. Whether civilization has in fact survived in Europe is left a little ambiguous in the book, for the emigrant ships are not modern, but wooden galleons, which suggests a collapse in Europe too. But it is evidently in America that the collapse has been most total.

Dystopias, by contrast, are two a penny and most of them are at least partially convincing.

The meaning or message of the book is not itself unambiguous. If novels had such easy meanings or messages they would be one sentence long instead of 300 pages long. The Pesthouse could, for example, be read as a warning about how dangerously disconnected we have become by the vastness and complexity of our societies from the ground of our being: the production of food, for example, or the construction of the shelters in which we live. We are all in thrall to scores, hundreds, thousands perhaps, of mechanisms of whose workings we have no conception. We like to think of ourselves as independent and autonomous, but in fact we are far less independent and autonomous than the villeins of the feudal age. What happens when all the mechanisms and organizations that allow us to lead our lives break down and dissolve?

So The Pesthouse could be seen as a reworking of E. M. Forster’s dystopian novella, The Machine Stops, published in 1909. In Forster’s story, mankind has become entirely subterranean, living isolated lives in temperature-controlled cells where everything is available at the push of a button and all human contact is second-hand, via electronic communication apparatus. First-hand experience of anything except the cell in which one lives is feared and avoided by everyone.

The protagonist, a woman called Vaisha, has a son called Kuno. Kuno is a rebel, who realizes that “We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now.” This is a thought too terrifying for his mother to entertain, so she breaks off contact with her son. When, however, the machine stops, humanity—having made itself utterly dependent upon its own creation—dies.

Jim Crace’s novel hints that this state of dependence is the fundamental condition of modern man. And since modern man is nowhere more modern than in America, it is only right and proper that the consequences of that dependence, in conditions of breakdown, should be sited in America.

It is the story of two would-be emigrants to Europe, Franklin and Margaret. Franklin is a farm boy from the Midwest whose mother has encouraged him and his older brother to go east in search of a new life, but—in a manner typical of the way people behave in post-catastrophic America—his older brother abandons him when he injures his ankle.

Margaret survives in a small town on a river, which lives by charging would-be immigrants (not in money, for money is now unknown, but in their few possessions) for a ferry crossing. Margaret is saved by the fact that, when a nearby lake discharges a cloud of poisonous gas that kills all the inhabitants of the small town (as a lake in Cameroon did a few years ago), she is in the Pesthouse of the book’s title, a hut on a hill whither townspeople are taken when they suffer from the epidemic infectious diseases to which, all medical knowledge having been lost, the response is medieval. It is there that Franklin stumbles across her, and the rest of the book is an account of their journey to the coast.

Amongst other adventures, Franklin is taken prisoner and enslaved by one of the bands of marauders that roam the landscape in search of the pathetic booty that so impoverished a population can afford. For a while, Margaret falls in with a strange pacifist sect called the Finger Baptists, who live in a commune called the Ark and whose elders allow their arms and hands to atrophy because their followers do everything for them. Their chief doctrine is the wickedness of metal—the discovery and misuse of which, they believe, has been responsible for all human woes—and all aspirants to their commune are rigorously searched for any metallic object, which is then buried. This search is a parody of the security searches that we must now undergo whenever we fly, while the attribution of evil to mere minerals is a parody of extreme environmentalism.

Margaret and Franklin are reunited when the band of which Franklin is now a slave raids the Ark and kills the leaders of the Finger Baptists; Franklin then leads a slave revolt and escapes with Margaret. Strangely enough, their relations remain delicately platonic for a long time, though they are attracted to one another. The implication is that, after the catastrophe, the relations between the sexes have become much more formal and less fluid: as if this, too, were a symptom of social regression.

Whatever other meanings one might give to this book, one meaning is clear to me: that it represents Europe’s revenge upon America for having so far outdistanced it in many areas of human endeavor, but in particular in political power. Of course, it is an impotent revenge, of no directly practical import, but that does not mean it does not give an insight into the state of the European mind. For the fact is that there is in the lingering descriptions of the reversion of America to a pre-medieval state, both of material and intellectual culture, a discernible satisfaction. The nearer the emigrants get to the east, the worse and more dangerous things are, because of the desperation of the population:

I’ve heard of people there with gaping wounds, and widows with the pieces of their murdered men and sons in sacks, and tales of little boys and girls, hardly big enough to climb down off their mothers’ laps, who’ve been taken by the gangs and sold or put to work.

For Freud, dreams were wish-fulfilment in symbolic form; it is difficult not to see in this fantasy a strong element of wish-fulfilment. If I am right, the book represents a subtler or more housetrained version of the sentiment, by no means uncommon among European intellectuals, that in the destruction of the Twin Towers, America got what it deserved and had long had coming to it.

A much more impressive dystopia, published shortly before The Pesthouse, is J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.2 Ballard is a veteran dystopian who has already proved himself something of a prophet. He gazes out at the world around him as if completely detached from it; the world he sees is so horrible that detachment is a necessary mechanism of psychological survival.

Ballard is more impressive than Crace because he is an acute diagnostician of the sickness by which he is surrounded in the society in which he actually lives; he does not displace it to another continent in order to gratify himself cheaply with the thought that, however bad things are here, they are far worse elsewhere. Ballard knows he is living in a society (Britain) in which 50 percent of the population are so appalled by the other 50 percent of the population that they say they would live elsewhere if they possibly could. (A tenth have already left.)

Kingdom Come is a condition of England novel that exactly and acutely captures the horrible spiritual emptiness of the country: the combination of sentimentality and brutality, of utter ethical solipsism and eagerness to immerse oneself in crowds that decide everything for one, of inflamed individualism and lack of individual character, that is evident everywhere. The only kind of freedom valued is that of consumer choice: that is to say, of consumption without discrimination and—especially—without consequences. Constant entertainment disguises the increasingly controlled and authoritarian nature of society (the average Briton today is filmed 300 times a day as he goes about his business, Britain now being the CCTV camera capital of the world, as much in the lead in video surveillance as Colombia is in kidnapping, so that every Briton has become a film star, whether he knows it or not).

Set in the prosperous wastelands that surround London, in an unspecified but not very distant future, Ballard projects or exaggerates a few trends to describe a society of a new type, bread-and-circus fascism. The “spiritual” focus of life here is the shopping mall, the airport, and the filling station:

They [the inhabitants] lived in an eternal retail present, where the deepest moral decisions concerned the purchase of a refrigerator or a washing machine.

Parking was well on the way to becoming the British population’s greatest spiritual need.

Here, a filling station beside a dual carriageway enshrined a deeper sense of community than any church or chapel, a greater awareness of a shared culture than a library or municipal gallery could offer.

Consumerism dominated the lives of the people, who looked as if they were shopping whatever they were doing.

But such a life is, of course, deeply unsatisfying. What can fill the gap? A form of nationalism without any awareness of the history or traditions of the nation to which it is attached. St. George’s flag, the red cross on a white ground, appears everywhere as an aggressive symbol of belonging; it flies from every house, and, in the form of a tee-shirt, it covers every beer belly of every shaven-headed man who attends a football match and riots afterwards.

The protagonist of the story is a successful advertising executive (partly responsible, of course, for spreading the notion that the whole of life, including the commission of violence against strangers and foreigners, is merely a series of consumer choices). His father is shot dead in the vast shopping mall called the Metro Centre by a drug-crazed mental patient on day-release from the hospital who goes on a rampage and kills people at random. The Metro Centre has several large hotels within it, with tropical surroundings complete with palm trees and artificial sunlight; its commercial symbol is a family of huge mechanical teddy bears waving continually to the crowds, who treat them as if they were alive, and who are personally distressed if anything goes wrong with them or they are damaged in any way.

In the aftermath of the killing, it is unclear who are the criminals and who are the authorities.

In the aftermath of the killing, it is unclear who are the criminals and who are the authorities. Nothing is what it seems, nothing is straightforward, no meaning can be attached to anyone’s statements, no one is to be trusted. Postmodernism has moved out of the academy, no longer merely the plaything of university professors who, without it, would have nothing to say; it has become a way of life and a principle of institutional organization and career advancement.

Ballard gets the symbols exactly right: the teddy bear for the sentimentality, the English flag for the brutality (and brutishness) of contemporary England, both of them serving to make the country an increasingly civilization-free zone.

Whenever there is a fatal accident, or a fatal stabbing or shooting, in an English city, teddy bears soon appear at the site, often strapped to the nearest lamppost. They are the lightning conductors of disturbing thoughts and emotions, discharging them harmlessly into the ground. They serve the purposes of shallowness and intensity at the same time; they are the tribute that egotism pays to sympathy. That is why, as Ballard so acutely perceives, they play so large a part in modern English life.

As for the flag, which only a handful of years ago was scarcely ever seen, and then only in the hands of people with the crudest xenophobic sentiments, it is now to be found everywhere. One of Mr. Blair’s greatest achievements, so far unheralded, is the near certain destruction of the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England, with the very real possibility of the emergence once again of destructive hostility. English nationalists will soon find real reasons to hate the Scots, for example because of the vast subsidies they have so thanklessly received for decades; the Scots, suddenly deprived of those subsidies, will find one more reason to loathe the English.

English nationalism will appeal most to people who do not know a line of Shakespeare, and who have no awareness of any cultural connection to the country’s past. For such people, hatred will be the cement that binds: hatred of neighbors, hatred of foreigners, hatred of the world as it was, as it is, and as it will be. Mere prosperity—more bathrooms, more vehicles—will not satisfy them. They will want blood and smashed glass.

Crace’s book, it seems to me, is evasive, almost cowardly, by comparison with Ballard’s. In this connection, I cannot forebear from quoting a line from William Morris’s socialist utopian novel, a permanent inspiration to intellectual adolescents, News from Nowhere, first published in 1891. The narrator of the book is transported forward in time, just over a hundred years, to an England shorn of problems, thanks to socialism. The time traveller reads a notice on the guest house where he is give a simple, but of course delicious, breakfast: “Guests and neighbours, on the site of this Guest-hall once stood the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists. Drink a glass to the memory! May 1962.” Well, there has in fact been quite a lot of socialism in Hammersmith since Morris wrote, though with not quite the results he expected or hoped for. A friend of mine lives in a street there called Hammersmith Grove, and last month a murder took place outside his door. An adolescent was stabbed to death by a gang of adolescents, who stole his phone. Of course, he was no angel himself; but that did not prevent the arrival, right on cue, of teddy bears.

Go to the top of the document.

  1.   The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace; Nan A. Talese, 272 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
  2.   Kingdom Come, by J. G. Ballard; Fourth Estate, 304 pages, £17.99. Go back to the text.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 9, on page 33
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now